If you haven't noticed, opportunities for air travel have been a little bit scarce as of late. Sure, it's still possible to fly from here to there, but it's much less desirable than it used to be for obvious pandemic-related reasons. And I definitely miss it. Playing the new Microsoft Flight Simulator has done a lot to fill that gap, and then some, offering up the chance to not only see the Earth from thousands of feet up, but also the opportunity to take control of one of 20 different planes to chart my own courses.
The great thing about Microsoft Flight Simulator and its real-time Bing maps integration is you can hop into a plane and take off from basically any airport in the entire world. At last count, over 37,000 airports, airfields, and even tiny dirt airstrips were available to you. The 30 airports available with the base game are hand-crafted to resemble the actual airports on which they're based as accurately as possible. If you've ever flown into LAX or JFK, you'll probably be astonished at how well they've been recreated here by Asobo Studios. But the 36,970 other airfields are also impressive, even if they aren't modeled on actual architectural blueprints like the hand-crafted ones. For example, my local airport in midcoast Maine is absolutely tiny, with two runways: one just over 1,500 meters and the other just over 1,200 meters.
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The algorithm used to fill in the three-dimensional structures from real-world Bing maps data recreated my local airport to a level such that I wasn't sure if it was generated or built by a programmer. Sure, there are a few smaller buildings missing, and the signage isn't in place, but it's close enough I could actually recognize it when I was taxiing to park.
But that's just my small rural airport. The real joy of Microsoft Flight Simulator has been visiting places I've never been before. I watched a short YouTube video on Hong Kong the other day and when it was over I thought, "It would be cool to fly over Hong Kong at night, I bet." And so I fired up Flight Sim and I did. And it looked incredible. I was able to fly around the city and see the towering skyscrapers lit up with the warm orange hues of halogen and cool blues of mercury streetlights on the patchwork of city streets below. Couple that with the half-moon reflecting off the ocean and a few low-clouds and it was sublime, almost like a low-fi hip-hop beat come to life.
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Beyond Hong Kong at night, I visited other places on my bucket list, flying lower and closer than real-life would ever allow. I took off from Galeão International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and immediately pointed the nose toward Christ the Redeemer, the massive granite statue looking over the city. After circling around, I radioed the tower and went back in for a landing. The level of detail in the model of the statue is incredible.
I flew a similar sight-seeing tour of the Great Pyramids, coming in lower and closer than any real-life plane would be allowed. I also took a tour of the Grand Canyon, dropping down inside and carefully maneuvering my plane between its foreboding walls.
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I have to say, Microsoft Flight Simulator is scratching my travel itch while letting me explore and experience more than I ever could simply sitting in seat 24C on a commercial jet. It's almost an addiction at this point. If I'm watching a YouTube video or something on Netflix and I see an interesting location, I make a note to visit it later in Flight Simulator. With no clear end in sight to the stay-at-home and quarantine orders still covering so much of the country and much of the world, Microsoft Flight Simulator let me escape the confines of my small town and explore the world anyway, and for that I absolutely cannot wait for its full release on PC on August 18